Tuesday 21 August 2018

The man who faced his demons

Colm O'Gorman's story is not just another testimony of childhood misery and adult acceptance. It's also an exposure of the tacit evasiveness that held a country in a state of self-denial, bullied by authority and frozen in collective shame, writes Emily Hourican

CHRISTIAN MESSAGE: Colm O'Gorman says 'Our capacity to love is infinite, and nothing in my life has ever caused me to deflect from knowing that'.
CHRISTIAN MESSAGE: Colm O'Gorman says 'Our capacity to love is infinite, and nothing in my life has ever caused me to deflect from knowing that'.

Emily Hourican

When secrets and lies have caused so much hurt, truth matters." It's a simple statement, and the motor behind Colm O'Gorman's new book, Beyond Belief, the story of his remarkable journey from shamed, damaged, marginalised child, to a grown-up existence of dignity and decency.

On a cold, rainy Friday, in his offices on Westmoreland Street, Dublin, O'Gorman explains to me the force that drove him to write a book that was frequently as "difficult" and "uncomfortable" to write as it is to read.

Beyond Belief is the story of what happened to Colm as a child in Wexford, when he was abused over a period of two years by Fr Sean Fortune, the priest entrusted to protect and cherish him. The book is an exposure of the tacit nod- and-wink evasiveness that held an entire country in a submissive state of self-denial, bullied by authority and frozen in collective shame.

It is also the tale of O'Gorman's journey towards acceptance of what happened to him, and then an outrage so blinding it inspired him to sue the Church, and challenge the State into setting up the Ferns Inquiry. And it is, perhaps even more crucially, a book full of truly radical ideas, in the way that Christ's message of love and forgiveness, was radical. "Our capacity to love is infinite, and nothing in my life has ever caused me on any level to deflect from knowing that. Maybe that's what gave me the resilience to survive," he tells me.

Colm O'Gorman grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, the third of six children, a sensitive child who loved nature and the life of the Adamstown farm on which the family lived. Despite a difficult, distant relationship with his adored father, in recollection this was an idyllic time. But it didn't last.

In Beyond Belief, O'Gorman writes, bleakly, "there were two men living in our village who hurt children ... they raped and abused ... I was one of the children they hurt." When I ask him now how this could have happened, why he was not better protected, he responds, "because I was five at a time when this wasn't possible. It was 1971, child sexual abuse didn't exist. I didn't have anything like the level of understanding to know what was happening to me. And at that age, one of the things I knew was that grown-ups hurt you when you'd been bad. So my experience of adults who hurt me, was that they hurt me if it was my fault."

We are now sufficiently sophisticated in our understanding of patterns of abuse to see that there is often a kind of chain reaction, each link creating the possibility of another link.

When he was seven or eight, an older boy from the area began abusing Colm, abuse which he was by then tragically inured to "accept as normal".

When he was 14, Colm first met Fr Fortune, then in his late 20s and already a force within the church. Loud, imposing and with a sense of the dramatic, "he was," Colm says "known as a charismatic, go-getting young priest who did fantastic things for his parishioners and his people, despite the fact that in his own parish there was enormous turmoil because of the arrogant way he behaved towards people." He was, O'Gorman says, very much a product of society's need for heroes.

"We wanted our saints, our tall, energetic young priests who would lead us forward and make everything perfect for us. So we created them."

Within two weeks of meeting Colm, at a youth group, Fr Fortune called to his house looking for him. It is still an extraordinary measure of the then power of the church, that within a week of that first visit, he could have taken Colm away with him for a weekend.

Ostensibly, Colm was to help with another youth group. In reality, that first weekend, he was told he had to share a bed with Fr Fortune as there was only one bed in the house. The priest seduced and abused him; forever destroying the innocence of belief in a benign authority, as well as that precious, fragile sense of self.

"Words like abuse are easy to use," says Colm. "Words can't describe the smell, the sounds, the taste of it all. Words can't tell you how it felt. It was sordid and degrading and hateful ... full of hate."

The next day, Fortune threatened Colm that he would tell his father, still the central figure in the young boy's life, someone he was desperate to establish a relationship with -- unless he allowed the priest to continue to "help him". In his fear, shame, self-hatred and confusion, Colm had no choice but to accept, and so it continued for another two years, during which time the priest had all the access to Colm he required.

Fr Fortune's power then was absolute, and he flaunted it, positively enjoying the few occasions when Colm tried to challenge him, and was triumphed over completely; sometimes physically -- as when he was raped -- sometimes psychologically, when no amount of protest on the boy's part could gain him a reprieve.

Over those two years, Fr Fortune annihilated completely the young man Colm had begun to grow into, cauterising his developing interests in politics, literature and the world around him; fracturing the reality of his life so that two parallel existences ran side by side -- one, the normal life of school, home, friends; the other, a ghoulish world in which he lived, alone, with what Fr Fortune was doing to him.

By the time he turned 17, Colm was depressed, lethargic, overweight and frequently bullied by his peers. The one consolation was that Fortune now lost interest in him, instead offering him money to find another, younger, boy to have sex with. It was the last straw.

Colm left home, moving to Dublin, where he lived on the streets for a while, exchanging sex with strange men for the sake of a bed at night. During this time and for some years afterwards, he had no contact with his family. His mother, a woman far ahead of her time -- "she was brave and courageous, full of ideas that were ahead of themselves, an extraordinary woman" -- had become interested in yoga and meditation, finally leaving his father and moving to an ashram in India for a year with the two younger children. His father's business had failed and he was still in Wexford, trying to start something else.

From those hard, early days in Dublin, Colm gradually established a life, finding work, friends, a social scene that finally permitted him to come to terms with at least some of who he was. He was able to face that fact of his homosexuality, and began to form adult, loving relationships, but was still a long way from confronting his own past, which surfaced only in terrible, recurring nightmares.

What finally forced him home to Wexford was discovering that his sister, Deirdre, then 18, was pregnant, unmarried and had moved out of home. He resolved to see her and try to help.

That journey home -- to a family who by then knew about the years of abuse, and that he was gay -- was the start of what Colm had longed for all his life -- a loving, open relationship with his father. And it was this relationship that would give him the strength to finally tell his story and set in train the events that would change not just his life, but would take the entire country on a vital journey.

Beyond Belief is dominated by the actions and character of Sean Fortune, but equal and opposite to this dark force is the presence of Colm's father, Sean, to whom the book is dedicated. The relationship between father and son is central to so much of what happens, even though much of it takes places in a tragically fore-shortened period of 10 months, book-ended by Colm's visit home to Wexford and his father's death from cancer the next year.

"My father has been an influence on my life in ways I could never have imagined," Colm says. "He loved, I think, with a huge intensity, but he wasn't allowed, culturally or socially, to express that, so he stayed away from it. I think that was very painful for him, and created a great sense of disconnection."

Thanks to this "extraordinarily honest, expressive, loving" relationship, Colm found the strength to launch his campaign for justice, during which he took on the State, the Catholic Church, even the Vatican, in a battle to determine just what they knew about the evil acts of those they had ordained, and what they did with that knowledge.

In March 1999 Sean Fortune was finally charged in court with 66 offences, from sexual assault and gross indecency to buggery. To each he pleaded not guilty. A couple of weeks later, while out on bail, he killed himself, thereby cruelly robbing his victims of the resolution they so badly craved. To his own surprise, Colm wept when he heard the news.

"I think in part I was so devastated because I knew then that he was never going to face what he had done, and there was just such an awful tragedy in that. I remember at the time saying, he's become a victim himself now too, of that extraordinarily psychopathic, destructive, drive, hate-filled persona that he became. That's not the sum of his life; he loved, and was loved, those things are also true. He's become this pastiche, this bogeyman, and that's tragic, and dishonest."

Because ultimately, responsibility lies not just with the perpetrator of the abuse, but with the system that contained him.

"I question the degree to which he could have become those things had others not allowed and even tacitly supported that.

"When you look at the progression of his offending, it just becomes more and more outrageous as time goes by, because no one ever said stop. I don't believe he could have gone so far in his capacity for evil if there had been limits. In that way, he was betrayed by the Church as well."

Four years later, Colm O'Gorman made history by receiving the very first public apology from the Catholic Church for sexual abuse by one of their priests.

It was the end of a 22-year journey, and the day the burden of responsibility for the abuse he suffered as a boy, was finally lifted from his shoulders and placed where it belonged. Nowadays, he is executive director of Amnesty International in Ireland, and is "happy, content; at peace with myself. I have a good life and a great family." Finally, he has arrived at "a good place to be."

Although his story is painful and terrible to read, O'Gorman has created a next step -- not so much an ending as a new beginning -- that is inspirational and moving. By refusing to see only his own hurt, by projecting that outwards and finding compassion for the society that let him down, and then by extending that compassion even to the man who so foully betrayed him, he has created the possibility of love in a vacuum of horror, and given an entire country strength to face its demons.

Beyond Belief by Colm O'Gorman (Hodder & Stoughton, £13.99) is out on May 14

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